Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

Diversity's Greatest Hits, 2008

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

A year in the quest for a news media that looks like America


Mike Luckovich/Atlanta Journal-Constitution



1. Devastation, Recession - Yet Larger Audiences

When the Associated Press asked editors to name the top stories of 2008, Linda Grist Cunningham of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star wrote, "As far as I am concerned, there were only two stories this year, global economy collapses (sending every country into financial, political and personal chaos) and Obama elected U.S. president, changing the way . . . America does business - financial, political and personal." 

For journalists hard-wired to the quest for racial equality, there could be no bigger story than the election of the first African American president - except that there were fewer journalists this year to report that story, especially those of color. The transformation of the news industry from its traditional business model to an uncertain future continued at a heartbreaking cost, compounded by a deepening recession. The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that 21,000 newspaper industry jobs disappeared in 2008.

At workplaces where union rules required that layoffs be meted out according to seniority, journalists of color, often the last hired - were among the first to go. In newsrooms where buyouts were offered based on seniority, journalists of color left, too, taking their institutional memory.

In some of the most devastating examples, the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., laid off 40 percent of its newsroom, and the Chicago Sun-Times let go the last two journalists of color on its editorial board.

In April, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in its annual diversity census, "the total number of minority journalists employed at daily newspapers declined by nearly 300 people." And that was early in the year.

The journalist-of-color associations focused their efforts on retraining members to survive independently of news organizations and to perform in a multimedia environment. Simultaneously, they reminded news organizations that diversity was crucial to their bottom lines.

At the Unity: Journalists of Color convention, Sharon Chan, the incoming president of the Asian American Journalists Association, was optimistic. "The future of the industry is bright," she said. "The demand for news and information is greater than ever, but the business model is broken." Chan said that when she looks at the "early adapters" to the new platforms - who started blogs, who updated Facebook pages - "these are people of color."

But George Curry, a veteran African American journalist who had spent most of his career urging young people to consider careers in journalism, wrote that he was now having second thoughts. "Papers are foolishly eliminating many of the features that attracted readers in the first place. While that might help finances in the short term, it could spell more disaster down the road."

The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press announced they would stop home delivery four days a week and push toward daily Web expansion. Ironically, because of the reach of the Internet, the journalists who remained had potentially larger audiences than ever.

The Obama campaign  posted a collage of front pages from Election Day, courtesy of the Newseum.

2. Election of Barack Obama After Endless Campaign 

With the election of Barack Obama, the nation has not only its first African American president, but a wordsmith who authored two books and an advocate for more public access to the media. 

The nation's longest and most gripping presidential campaign provided an opportunity to report on issues of race and gender as never before, but to many observers the coverage merely exposed the media's shortcomings in doing so.

"When reporters, editors, and producers lack the skills to report accurately in the face of difference, coverage can suffer from implicit, and often unconscious, bias," said an August report from the White House Project, the Women's Media Center and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. "If you don't see it, how can you address it?"

A black editor at a major news organization told Journal-isms in March, "our campaign coverage is extremely white. It doesn't mean it lacks sensitivity, but they don't know the nuances of growing up black in America."

When Obama traveled triumphantly to Europe and the Middle East in July, no broadcast journalists of color were part of the media throng following him, and Kevin Chappell of Ebony and Jet was the only black print reporter.

In the energized post-election environment, as news organizations announced their teams covering the Obama White House, only a few included black journalists, and fewer still other journalists of color.

Yet Obama proved a financial bonanza for media outlets, which found gold in putting the photogenic senator on magazine covers of every stripe. Newspapers unexpectedly sold out of the election editions that declared him the winner, then news organizations churned out instant keepsakes about Obama, televised documentaries about his campaign, and prepared to cash in all over again for his inauguration.

The nation's two biggest African American media moguls, Oprah Winfrey and BET founder Bob Johnson, were on opposite sides during the Democratic primary, with Winfrey supporting Obama and Johnson clumsily backing Hillary Clinton with words for which Clinton was forced to apologize.

In a rare move, the Obama thunderbolt prompted BET and TV One, the two largest black-oriented cable networks, to set aside business as usual to cover the Democratic National Convention and the victorious Election Night.

The New Yorker magazine ignited a firestorm with a cover showing Obama in Muslim garb and all the right-wing stereotypes about the would-be first couple. The magazine protested that it was satire, but critics found it wanting even on that score. Fox News and commentator Pat Buchanan collected a Thumbs Down award from the National Association of Black Journalists for their campaign-inspired racial misfires.

Coverage by the Associated Press, the world's largest news-gathering organization, was often hopelessly whitebread, but the news cooperative in July installed a national writer on race and ethnicity, Jesse Washington, and co-sponsored a Stanford University-Yahoo poll that found that deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Obama the White House if the election were close. It wasn't.

The example of Obama himself might be the campaign's longest-lasting effect on the media. With his mixed heritage, the first black president personifies diversity, and his journey to the pinnacle provides a powerful incentive for young people to strive to succeed - even as journalists. 

3. Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

At a time when the news media were "being forced to concentrate on issues of race for the first time since the late 1960s," a survey of news managers at the broadcast networks and their 61 network-owned television stations found a dearth of people of color, with almost no diversity in the uppermost tier, the National Association of Black Journalists found in July. 

CBS-owned stations proved to be the least diverse at the management level, having no general managers or news directors of color, according to the survey, released at the Unity convention in Chicago. Black journalists had reached the ranks of network vice presidents at NBC News - Mark Whitaker and Lyne Pitts - and ABC News - Paul S. Mason - but not at CBS.

The NABJ announcement came in the same week that the annual Radio-Television News Directors Association/Hofstra University diversity survey showed journalists of color to be 23.6 percent of local television news staffs.

On cable, the magazine DiversityInc. named the Turner Broadcasting System the No. 1 company for blacks, saying in April that Turner reported 22 percent of its work force and 28 percent of all new hires were black.

In newspapers, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which conducts an annual census of its member newspapers, reported in April that diversity efforts had just about stalled, saying, "The percentage of minorities working at daily newspapers grew minimally to 13.52 percent from 13.43 percent of all journalists." That was nowhere near the goal of reflecting the population at large, which in 2006 was 34 percent people of color.

The Gannett Co., the nation's largest newspaper company, reported in September that its newsrooms - now "local information centers" - "have held the line on percentage of staffing for people of color, and the percentage of managers has slightly increased. The 19.5 percent in staffing and 20.8 percent in managers of color have kept the numbers at record highs."

A report on the diversity at newspaper sports departments and sports Web sites did not show much progress. "In 2008, 94 percent of the sports editors, 89 percent of the assistant sports editors, 88 percent of our columnists, 87 percent of our reporters and 89 percent of our copy editors/designers are white, and those same positions are 94, 90, 94, 91 and 84 percent male," said the survey, released in June. It was the second performed for the Associated Press Sports Editors by Richard Lapchick and his Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

The few cartoonists of color on the comics pages weren't chuckling much in February. A survey by the Washington Post Writers Group found that only 330 newspapers ran at least one strip with minority characters or by a cartoonist of color. That was 24 percent. "In other words, 76 percent of newspapers in this country do not have one of the 16 strips we searched for," the writers group said. The survey was released in conjunction with a "Cartoonists of Color Sit-In," in which the artists each did a version of the same strip to show that, contrary to what some editors might think, their strips are not all the same.

4. Diversity Programs Take a Hit

In August, it was disclosed that the ASNE Reporter, convention newspaper of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, was suspending publication next year. For two decades, the Reporter provided students of color with real-world journalism training as they wrote for an audience of the nation's newspaper editors. 

When National Public Radio announced in December it would reduce its work force by 7 percent to cope with a projected $23 million deficit, one of the casualties was Doug Mitchell, an NPR employee who has trained scores of young journalists of color to enter broadcasting. Another was "News & Notes," a daily magazine show developed specifically to address African American issues.

Mitchell is project manager for NPR's Next Generation Radio, which among other charges runs a training project during the summer conventions of the journalist-of-color organizations and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. The program will end along with Mitchell's employment there, NPR said, though Mitchell hopes to continue working with the associations without NPR.

And so it went throughout the year, as programs to train a diverse next generation of journalists ran up against budget cutbacks.

The cash-strapped Philadelphia Inquirer encountered a backlash from some schools when it asked whether the schools would help underwrite an internship, for either all or part of the cost.

A bright spot: The latest incarnation of the Los Angeles Times' Metpro program, begun at the old Times Mirror Co., expanded, at least at the Times itself. The program is now centralized at the Los Angeles newspaper, and the current class includes 12 people, including two copy editors and a graphic artist. Previously, the Times trained 13 people and sent all but two out to other papers in the chain.

"Some people say it's cheaper labor, and in a sense that's true," Randy Hagihara, senior editor for recruitment, told Journal-isms. But, he said, "we're maintaining a commitment to diversity. We're committed to building the newspaper staff of the future."

Randy HagiharaA survey of 293 alumni of J Camp, a multicultural journalism training program for high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors, found that journalism and media-related jobs are still an attractive career choice, the Asian American Journalists Association reported in July, though it added that "the unstable industry and low pay are top concerns for those who once considered journalism as their career choice."

And there was this: The gap between white journalism and mass communication graduates and their counterparts of color "widened a little bit" in the University of Georgia's annual survey of the job market, according to co-author Lee B. Becker.


Thomas A. Johnson, shown at the New York Times, was the first black reporter at Newsday. (N.Y. Times)

5. Passings

Among those who died this year were Nancy Hicks Maynard, 61, a co-founder of the Maynard Institute for

Nancy MaynardJournalism Education; Dith Pran, 65, New York Times photographer best remembered as the survivor of the genocide in Cambodia that inspired the 1984 movie "The Killing Fields"; Roger E. Hernandez, 53, a syndicated columnist described by his syndicate as "the first Hispanic columnist to address the concerns of Hispanic Americans in a nationally syndicated newspaper column"; Thomas A. Johnson, 79, retired New York Times reporter who covered the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement; and Patricia L. Tobin, 65, a public relations pioneer in Los Angeles who was beloved by members of the National Association of Black Journalists, of which she was a member. 

 Roger E. HernandezThe sudden June death of Tim Russert, NBC Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press," prompted an orgy of tributes, particularly on NBC and its cable channel, MSNBC. Mark Whitaker, the former editor of Newsweek who is African American, took over Russert's job as bureau chief while remaining an NBC News vice president. Russert was 58.

6. New News Web Sites, a creation of the Washington Post Co. and Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates, and, the brainchild of author and activist Keith Boykin, launched this year as news Web sites that attracted the eyeballs of black journalists., particularly, became known as a place for black journalists to provide commentary, though the pay was low and the site rarely ventured into original reporting. 

Journalists of color have yet to develop a business model in cyberspace that produces quality reporting.

Elsewhere, "Spot.Us, a San Francisco-based community news site launched in October. On the site, freelance journalists pitch stories to readers, rather than editors, and set their own commission," Douglas MacMillan reported last week for Business Week. "If readers like the idea, they pitch in a small amount—usually about $30—towards the total cost, which might be as high as $2,500. If enough readers chip in, the story gets produced and posted to the site for anyone to read."

In Minnesota, four families put up $850,000 to launch MinnPost, whose mission is "to provide high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota. . . . based on reporting by professional journalists, most of whom have decades of experience in the Twin Cities media." Its editor and CEO is Joel Kramer, former editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. 

ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom of 28 working journalists, produces investigative journalism and began publishing online in June. Lead funding is being provided by the Sandler Foundation, and Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, leads the effort.


7. Chauncey Bailey Project

"If anyone thought Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey‚ work would die when he was gunned down on Aug. 2, 2007, they were terribly wrong. Within Chauncey Bailey weeks, about three dozen reporters, editors and other volunteers gathered in Oakland to finish his work," the Chauncey Bailey Project's Web site states proudly. 

"Our goal is to hammer home this point: 'You can’t kill a story by killing a journalist.'”

The project is loosely modeled on the Arizona Project, which in 1976 brought journalists from around the country to Phoenix to finish the work of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, who was killed by a car bomb while he was investigating the Mafia.

The idea for the project started with a message to this column from freelance journalist Kenneth J. Cooper and took off from there. Work began under the leadership of Dori J. Maynard, president and CEO of the Maynard Institute, and Sandy Close, executive editor of New America Media in San Francisco, with a number of other journalism organizations, including Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the National Association of Black Journalists, present at the creation.

In 2008, the project won IRE's Tom Renner Award "For outstanding reporting covering organized crime or other criminal acts," and NABJ's Best Practices Award.

In one recent example of the project's work, it reported on Dec. 16 that, "The August 2007 raid on Your Black Muslim Bakery was postponed 48 hours to accommodate the vacation schedules of two senior SWAT commanders, a delay that likely cost journalist Chauncey Bailey his life, according to police sources and a lawyer representing an officer deeply involved in planning the raid." 


8. Newspaper Sends Detroit Mayor to Jail

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick went to jail on a 120-day sentence after pleading guilty in September to lying under oath in connection with a police whistle-blower case that cost the city $8.4 million to settle.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, with his wife, Carlita, pleaded for forgiveness Jan. 30 from Detroiters and from his family after the scandal over romantic text messages. (Credit: WDIV-TV)

The ex-mayor also must pay $1 million in restitution. 

Kilpatrick's chief of staff, Christine Beatty, acknowledged this month that she, too, lied under oath. "Beatty's deal . . . calls for her to serve a 120-day jail term, 5 years of probation and pay $100,000 restitution to the City of Detroit in exchange for pleading guilty to two felony obstruction of justice charges. She is to go to jail immediately after her Jan. 5 sentencing," the Detroit Free Press reported.

Their ordeal began Jan. 23, when the Free Press published romantic and incriminating text messages sent by Beatty and Kilpatrick on city-issued pagers.

When Kilpatrick was forced to resign in September, Caesar Andrews, then executive editor of the Free Press, told Journal-isms it was a sad day. But it was also "one of those magic moments that really justifies so much of what we try to do. This shows what aggressive investigative reporting can yield when done the right way. It shows what can happen when you have highly skilled investigative reporters cut loose to do what they can do." 

9. AP Accepts "African American," "Native American"

Two decades after the term "African American" went mainstream, the Associated Press accepted the hyphenated version of the term as a legitimate phrase for its writers, along with "Native American" to refer to American Indians. 

The stylebook of the world's largest news organization is considered a bible in most newsrooms and in many professional offices. 

10. Tom Joyner and Tavis Smiley

After nearly 12 years as a fixture on radio's syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," activist, commentator and broadcast personality Tavis Smiley was quitting the program, Joyner told listeners in April, setting tongues wagging and computers searching. 

Smiley denied Joyner's initial statement that "He can't take the hate he's taking over this whole Barack Obama thing. People are really upset with him. He's always busting Barack Obama's chops. They call. They e-mail. They joke. They threaten. You know Tavis like I do. He needs to feel loved."

Smiley said he simply had too many irons in the fire.

After a vote by listeners to determine Smiley's successor ended in a dead heat, Joyner named Jeff Johnson of Black Entertainment Television and Stephanie Robinson, founding president and CEO of the Jamestown Project, a national think tank, his show's newest commentators. 

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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Folio's Predictions for 2009

Who submitted predictions serves as a strong indicator why the predictions are generally so dire: Angel Sepulveda seems to be the only predictor of color. Is there a single African American who submitted a prediction? A predicted future that does not take into account the 30 percent or so of Americans who are not white would, indeed, appear grim.

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